Huffman rolls snake-eyes in GO with gaming resolution

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, took a late-session gamble last month when he gutted a resolution on Earth Day and turned it into a measure intended to giving local communities more say over tribal casino projects. But last week, when ACR 56 hit the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, his measure went bust, with no member even offering a motion to give it a vote.

“Communities are completely shut out,” Huffman said. “I had what I thought was a simple and noncontroversial resolution.”

But things are rarely “simple and noncontroversial” when it comes to tribal gaming. The story of Huffman’s resolution – which would lack the force of law even if it was approved — is a tale of the  mistrust and political maneuvering that can accompany any bill in California relating to casinos.

ACR 56 “calls upon the Governor to refrain from negotiating a tribal-state gaming compact until the land on which such gaming will occur has been taken into trust for the tribe.” It also states there should be community support for such projects. This appeared to be a particularly contentious aspect of the measure. When casino projects have gone before local voters in recent years, they have often been voted down by wide margins.

One such community sits in Huffman’s district. Working with Stations Casinos Inc. of Las Vegas, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have been trying for years to build an urban casino in Rohnert Park.

While the project enjoys support among city officials in Rohnert Park, many in the nearby town of Petaluma have objected to the project, saying it would impact local roads and other resources. Petaluma held an advisory vote as part of the 2006 November general election, which resulted in 79 percent of voters opposing the project.

However, Huffman hit what he called a “brick wall” in GO, with numerous legislators and lobbyists objecting on both procedural and policy grounds. With the 40-minute hearing drawing towards a close, Senate GO chair Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, interrupted Huffman to ask the six other members present if they would support a motion for a vote. No one did, even though the committee includes the Senator from Huffman’s area, Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, and Senator Mark Wyland, R-Escondido, who has gone on record in the past supporting more local control in casino projects.

“I’m gonna let you have a close, but right now you don’t have a motion,” Wright told Huffman. “We ain’t going to move forward too far if there’s no motion, and right about now this just doesn’t look like your day.”  

Asked later how often a bill fails to get a motion in a hearing, Wright said “It happens all of the time.” He raised numerous procedural and policy problems with the resolution, noting “Federal law does not require the demonstration of local support before the state must negotiate in good faith to conclude a compact.”

“The program and procedures we have are fine in my view,” said Sen. Tom Harman, R-Orange. He said ACR 56 appeared to be an attempt to take away powers granted to the governor and the federal government in negotiating casino compacts. He also said that he did not like how ACR 56 ended up in front of the Committee.  

“How in the world can we in the Senate vote on concurring with something the Assembly did, when what the Assembly did has been gutted and amended into something else?” Harman asked.

Huffman said he didn’t buy this rationale, asking “If that were really a problem, why would the Rules Committee refer it to the GO committee?”

According to Huffman’s staff, they checked in with every member of the Senate GO committee and no one raised the gut-and-amend origin of the bill as a problem. It never even came up, they said, until it was raised in an 18-page Senate GO committee analysis released the day before the hearing.

Local activists opposing the casino also raised red flags when eight of the 13 members of the Senate GO Committee appeared as creditors in Stations Casinos’ recent bankruptcy documents. However, Stations Casinos spokeswoman Lori Nelson said these court documents reflected everyone Stations had written a check to recently—in this case, campaign donations to GO chair Rod Wright and the seven others. She noted that she was also listed, because she files expense reports. The company is currently reorganizing to stay in business.

The hearing was also notable for the sheer number of people testifying on both sides of a non-binding resolution. Several city officials from areas affected by gaming testified in favor of the motion. One of these was Petaluma city councilman Mike Healy, who noted the anti-casino resolution in his town passed “almost four to one, with no campaign.” Reached afterwards, Healy noted the sheer number of tribal and labor lobbyist who showed up to oppose the measure.

“The argument the opponents were making was that an advisor vote doesn’t make any difference, that a casino is inevitable,” Healy said. He added, “You have to get the impression they were very scared of an advisory vote, that they think it would make a difference, that it would be a game changer.”

Jerry Cassesi, president of the anti-casino group Friends of Amador County, testified that an advisory election in his area resulted in 84 percent of voters coming out against a casino proposal. Jon Colburn, mayor of Plymouth, said that a vote in his community showed 75 percent of voters were against a casino.

Huffman had originally tried to carry the measure as a bill, AB 1443. Containing much of the same language and also introduced as a gut and amend, it stalled in the Senate Rules Committee shortly after being introduced in June. Huffman has pledged to reintroduce a bill next year and to pursue the issue “until I am termed out.”

Last year, former Senate GO committee chair Dean Florez, D-Shafter, carried AB 1695, which also called for greater local input. It stalled in the Assembly GO Committee.

During the hearing, Huffman brought up another reason he said ACR 56 couldn’t get a vote.

“We know that there are powerful interests aligned in support of expanding tribal gaming,” Huffman said. “We see that. We have created in the last decade or so a multibillion dollar industry that has tremendous influence over the way this body does business quite frankly. I think it’s time to maybe swing the pendulum back a little bit.”

Reached later, he was even more blunt.

“I think it was pretty obvious when we got in there that the fix was in,” Huffman said. He added, “Witness after witness, lobbyist after lobbyist who had not given us the courtesy to tell us they were going to be there.”

But the chairman of the Graton tribe in Huffman’s district had a different take. Greg Sarris said the bill was discriminatory because it would subject Indians to requirements that other developers would not need to meet—something he compared to the laws against interracial marriage that forced his grandparents to go to Tijuana in the 1930s to get married.

Sarris, who is also a Sonoma State University professor in a Native American Studies chair endowed by the Graton Tribe, said the 75 mile rule written into the bill was unreasonable. Such a rule would allow governments in five other counties—Contra Costa, Lake, Marin, Mendocino and San Francisco—to weigh in on their casino proposal, even though most could show no actual impact on their communities. Furt
hermore, he said, communities already have the right to take advisory votes, as shown by the fact that several have already done so.

“He’s trying to create a situation where it’s impossible for Indians to build,” Sarris said. He added, “Huffman can bluff some of the public some of the time, but he’s not able to bluff the Legislature.”

Numerous labor groups were also on hand to oppose the measure. According to one, Jay Hansen of the State Building & Construction Trades Council, testified that one-fifth of his union’s members are currently out of work. The process of building a tribal casino is already slow, he said, even in areas like Rohnert Park where there is local support.

“There’s always a NIMBY group that doesn’t want something their back yard, and this is just one more piece of ammunition,” he said.
But one such “NIMBY,” Marilee Montgomery of Stop the Casino 101, wasn’t buying it.

“It doesn’t make any sense that anybody should be opposed to the right of the people to vote,” Montgomery said. “If people oppose a casino, the vote will reflect it. If the people want a casino, the vote will reflect that.”

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